Reuben Rotman, executive director of the Jewish Family Service of MetroWest NJ (JFS), has been hired as the inaugural chief executive officer of the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies, a new nonprofit organization that will launch in May.
The Network will be a national umbrella organization for the field of Jewish human services organizations, such as traditional agencies like JFS and Jewish Vocational Services (JVS), which now have separate umbrella organizations. It will also be comprised of a host of other nonprofits launched in the last couple of decades by the Jewish community, including those focusing on food insecurity; domestic violence; people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities; the lesbian, gay, and transgender communities; the elderly; and foster care services, among others.
Rotman envisions the Network as the Jewish counterpart for Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services, and told NJJN that it would become “the go-to place for research, for program development, for best practices, for innovation, for training, for professional development.”
“One of the forward-looking innovators who helped create the Network, Reuben brings his vision, extensive experience, and leadership skills to the task of building it,” said June Gutterman, cochair of the Network’s steering committee, in a prepared statement. “Reuben combines strategic thinking, planning, and implementation with a deep understanding of the challenges currently facing human service agencies.”
The Network will effectively merge and swallow the umbrella organizations for JVS and JFS — the International Association of Jewish Vocational Services (IAJVS) and the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies (AJFCA), respectively — and some of their leadership will join Rotman at the new entity, which will be headquartered either in Northern New Jersey or New York City.
Two years in the making, the Network was developed by a joint steering committee of leaders from the AJFCA and IAJVS. It combines the membership of the two organizations, consisting of 140 Jewish human service agencies in the United States and three in Israel.
Prior to joining Jewish Family Service of MetroWest in 1996, Rotman held positions with the UJA Federation of New York, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, and the JFS of Metropolitan Detroit. Rotman holds two master’s degrees from Brandeis University, one in management of human services and one in Jewish communal service.
He became executive director of JFS in 2004 and has dealt with everything from food insecurity and domestic violence to Superstorm Sandy and the recession of 2008. In a wide-ranging conversation in his office with NJJN, he discussed some of the achievements of his tenure. He said he is most proud of the partnerships he has developed, the diversification of the agency’s funding stream, and the way the agency has learned to respond to emerging needs of the larger community, all of which he hopes to replicate for the Network.
“A lot of the reason I think this JFS has really grown and become the strong vital provider that it is, is because we are all about partnerships,” he said, part of the “fundamental value” of what social work is — connecting people in need with community resources, both within and outside the Jewish community, including government agencies, hospitals, and academic institutions.
One of the first such partnerships he created was with the Jewish Community Housing Corporation, which provides housing for seniors. Before the partnership, individual residents might call JFS for assistance. “So you could have, on any given day, three or four social workers walking in and out of the building to see five or six different residents.” In creating the partnership, JCHC and JFS brought in what is now RWJBarnabas Health to complement the mental health and social services aspect with a physical health piece. Now, he said, “When JCHC staff have concerns about a resident, they can talk to their JFS social worker.”
During his tenure, JFS has established similar partnerships with nearly every local Jewish agency, including synagogues, which have designated social workers, and The Rachel Coalition, which addresses domestic violence through partnerships with police departments, court systems, hospitals, legal services, and community education services as well as its own team of clinicians.
“I’ve really worked to put a spin on this agency as an agency without walls. While we do have a building and clients do come here for services, we’re out in the community,” he said. The agency has become a resource for the entire community, not just low-income individuals and families. Sometimes his own board members come to JFS for professional assistance. A local bank once contacted them for counseling for staff after a robbery, and another time a local preschool called after a teacher suffered a heart attack in the class.
He is also proud of the agency’s response to emerging needs. “We are constantly reviewing call logs,” he said, looking at “Why are people calling? What are we doing? Are we being responsive enough? Is there something we could develop? If we have to say ‘no’ too many times, we have to figure out why we’re saying ‘no’ and develop a service response.”
Sometimes it takes a critical mass of calls on a particular issue — but other times, it could be just two or three calls, or even just one. That’s all it took to develop an alternative teen youth program for kids with social anxiety and social adjustment issues. A mother called about her son, who had gone through Hebrew school and celebrated his bar mitzvah, but the local youth group wasn’t working out for him.
Another community member couldn’t find an appropriate day program for a friend dealing with dementia. Rotman helped establish what is now The Memory Center at the JCC MetroWest in collaboration with the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey and the JCC.
“We’re not just waiting for the phone to ring,” said Rotman. “If you sit here and wait for the phone to ring, it’s going to be very quiet. You know you have to be an agency that’s out in the community.”
When Rotman started at JFS, the agency was largely funded by what is now the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. There was some additional revenue, about $50,000 at its peak, coming into the operating budget through a direct mail campaign.
Today, the agency raises over $1 million each year to support the operating budget through that campaign as well as through small and large events, tribute programs, a major gifts society campaign, and program-specific contributions. It also brings in over $2 million in grant revenue annually from sources ranging from private and family foundations to corporate foundations and government sources.
JFS recently participated in the “Create a Jewish Legacy” initiative that resulted in 40 new legacy commitments. And finally, over Rotman’s tenure, the agency has created an unrestricted endowment fund with 72 founding donors, and has received in addition 10 restricted endowment gifts. “It was a culture change for both the board and the professional staff,” Rotman said. It took a steep learning curve, he acknowledged, but the result is that through all of these streams of revenue, JFS today brings in over $4.7 million.
“Any healthy nonprofit needs to have diverse funding streams,” he said.
Rotman said he will miss his colleagues at JFS. “This is an incredibly talented team, passionately committed to the mission of this agency,” he said. “I’m also going to miss my partners: the board, the donor support — I’ve worked to really create very strong and, I think, lasting partners for this agency, and I’m going to miss those partners.”
Rotman has said he will step down from his position by the end of April, and JFS has begun the search process for his replacement. Rotman lives in Teaneck with his wife and three children.
Looking ahead, Rotman sees plenty of challenges. “We have to establish a presence, first of all,” he said. He pointed out that the whole array of organizations from funders to government will need to learn about the Network, whereas IAJVS and AJFCA were known entities. He also suggested that he will need to identify the range of organizations operating in the field and “find ways to engage.”
“It’s building a new entity,” he said. “There’s something incredibly exciting and engaging about that.”